Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010

A Visit to Soccer City: Living in Postquake Haiti

On Monday I went walking through a new city. It's been built in the soccer stadium in Leogane, a small town just southwest of Port-au-Prince. (The new Leogane city has a sister city in Port-au-Prince in the Sylvio Cator Stadium. Things are always more luxurious in the capital than they are in the provinces; for example, the ground cover at Sylvio Cator is Astroturf.) Like its sister city, the new Leogane town has been built entirely by Haitians for Haitians in the space of a week.

Leogane was almost completely flattened by the earthquake. The colonial cannon at the roundabout is nearly the only thing that went untouched, although Leogane looks as if the gun had been trained on the city for hours, letting off its old cannonballs. Even the above-ground graveyard there is wrecked, although its denizens had the luck to have already been dead when their eternal abodes were shattered. It's those who were not so lucky who have constructed Soccer City nearby.

It's a miraculous creation. It seems it must be unreal. It's much like any shantytown built over a period of decades. But there are differences. This shantytown was built not just by the very poor but also by the small businessmen and -women who only two weeks ago were running beauty shops and hardware stores, Internet cafés, grocery stores and bank branches. Pierre Jimmy has rebuilt his barbershop, in a manner of speaking, in Soccer City. He salvaged one chair from his old shop, and was busily shaving the back of a boy's neck as I walked by.

There are no tents from CARE or USAID or from anyone else in Soccer City. Instead, the houses are made of poles with sheets strung between them and plastic sheeting for roofs. A better house has been constructed of old plywood boards and ripped pieces of tin roofs (for walls and roofs), with a sheet for the door. The barbershop has a hinged wooden door with barber signs on it: a picture of a fashionable woman in a red bodice with long wavy tresses and a young handsome guy with a fade.

Nearby is a market lady selling cornmeal and rice, spices and beans, some oranges, lemons and garlic. She bought the stuff at the big market in Leogane and now is trying to resell it. "So far no one is buying," she says, shaking her head slowly in a characteristic Haitian signal of resignation.

People in Haiti are experiencing economic quake shock; they're holding on to what little money they have because they don't know what's coming: Another earthquake? Floods? The end of the world? And they might need to have a little cash on hand.

Simone Dimas lives a few blocks away from Pierre Jimmy (there are blocks in Soccer City). She has taken over one largish patch and is living in a very hot shack made completely from tin. She was a market commerçante — a merchant — two weeks ago. Demas takes us to her old house. It was a white, two-story home that now looks like a tuna sandwich on white bread. Between the two slices we can see the squashed bed where her mother and father, in their 70s, were lying when the quake struck. They were both crushed to death. An old armoire stands like a sentinel in another quadrant of the crush, bravely holding up a square of roof.

These new towns, which now dot the Haitian landscape from Jacmel to Ti Goave to Leogane, Carrefour, Martissant and the capital, are further examples of Haitians' ability to make a lot out of a little, to make do with what we would call nothing. Vast sums are pouring in from abroad, but as of now, few Haitians who were not grievously wounded in the quake have felt the effects. In terms of daily survival for the average person, little aid has trickled down. This was also the case during the floods of the past two years, though the tide of aid was nowhere as great at that time. Haitians have learned during the brutal two centuries since their independence that they must survive on their own. The government is doing seemingly little, though some food efforts have been made. President René Préval remains mute. The international community is just getting set up to do business, but so far they've been remarkable more for their guns and armored personnel carriers than for their rice and beans. "Outsiders come and go," Pierre Jimmy told me, standing in front of his new barbershop. "I cut hair."

Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier and other books. She teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine.

Read more in the new TIME book Earthquake Haiti: Tragedy and Hope and support TIME Haitian relief efforts.